It’s dry. It’s empty. It’s in the middle of nowhere. I’m talking about the desert. The desert of spiritual desolation. I have been through this desert more than once, and honestly, it sucks. Praying becomes a chore, Mass seems dry and lifeless, and the temptations to sin attack us around the clock. It feels like we’ve suddenly lost the fire. I think the one defining characteristic of desolation is the feeling of helplessness. We ask ourselves what we did wrong, why we are like this suddenly, and we are frustrated that we can’t do anything about it.
This is the reality of the spiritual desert. Everyone goes through it, and if you haven’t yet, you will at some point. It often occurs at unexpected times and it’s usually a major obstacle in one’s faith, especially if they aren’t expecting it. Desolation happens for a variety of reasons:
- Our own spiritual complacency or laziness
- God testing our devotion and trust in Him without receiving consolation
- God reminding us that everything comes from Him; radical dependency
but the most important thing is to not give up. If faith in God was easy, everyone would have it. St. Teresa of Calcutta went through a period of spiritual desolation that lasted for years where she literally couldn’t feel God’s presence at all and she still kept praying and hoping. And now, she is a saint and one of the most respected humanitarian figures of our time. Desolation is a part of the journey with God; the fact is that you don’t always feel close to him. But His love is always there because love is more than just a warm fuzzy feeling.
St. Ignatius was basically an expert on the interior life, and especially desolation. He made a list of 14 rules on how to deal with it specifically. (I will put the link down below to all 14 rules) One of the key points he touches is the opposite state of desolation, which is consolation. Consolation is when you identify that God is active and working in your life and when you are joyfully doing His will. This does not mean that we never sin during consolation or that we are constantly smiling, but it does bring a radical sense of faith, hope and love that affects our state of being. Our lives are kind of like waves of consolation and desolation, ups and downs. And the fact that consolation exists and that it happens in our lives is one of the main ways of staying on course during desolation. In other words, when desolation does occur, we can recall a time when we were in consolation and have hope to believe that consolation is real! And vise versa. When in consolation, we can thank God for that gift but also be prepared for desolation.
The other important thing to remember is that there are varying degrees of desolation. In some cases, it may just be a couple of days where our prayer life falls off and we are more hostile towards people. Or there might be stretches when praying and going to Mass is the last thing we want to do, our emotional state is a mess, and we feel like we’re too far away from God. These different degrees of desolation also take on many forms because the devil will try to find our weakest spot when we’re in desolation and attack. This means that desolation looks a little different for each person, but everyone goes through it one way or another.
Yes, desolation is a reality, but so is God’s love. God, who is love, will never abandon us, and that is reality. That is a something to cling to and to hope for. I’ll end with the simple quote of St. Padre Pio, “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”
The 14 rules of Spiritual Desolation and Consolation from St. Ignatius